GOP lawmaker vows to kill rules to reduce farm manure smell

September 18, 2019

FILE - In this Nov. 23, 2016 photo, Arlan Van Leeuwen, left, and Arlin Van Groningen, co-owners of the new New Hope Dairy, converse as they walk near 1 million gallon storage tank used to hold raw cow manure, at the dairy in Galt, Calif. Sen. Steve Nass, a key Republican lawmaker vowed Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019, to block new restrictions on manure storage after farmers complained state agriculture officials never consulted them and the rules are so tough they could end farm expansions in Wisconsin.

MADISON A key Republican lawmaker vowed Wednesday to block new state restrictions designed to protect farmers' neighbors from the stench of manure following a flurry of complaints from Wisconsin's agricultural community.

The state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection has spent the last three years drafting revisions to farm siting regulations. The latest version calls for dramatically expanding manure storage facility setbacks from neighbors' property lines for new farms and farms looking to expand.

Sen. Steve Nass, co-chairman of the Legislature's rules committee, issued a terse statement Wednesday accusing department "bureaucrats" of ignoring the industry's concerns and making life harder for farmers. He promised to do everything he can to block the rules if they reach his committee in their present form.

"It would be a terrible mistake for (the department) to formally submit their current version of rule changes to the Legislature," Nass said. "Instead, the department should scrap their current process and begin anew, this time seeking to work cooperatively with the widest representation of Wisconsin's agricultural community. However, if the agency prefers the route of confrontation, then that is what they will get from the Legislature and farmers of this state."

The department plans to bring the rules to an internal board for approval in November. From there the rules would go to Gov. Tony Evers. If he approves them which seems likely, since his administration controls the department they would go to Nass' committee. He could call a vote to block the rules from taking effect.

The agency issued a statement saying it has provided multiple opportunities for public input, including holding a dozen public hearings and taking more than 450 comments from the public.

"We are now considering those comments for possible revisions and will contemplate what the next step is," the statement said. "Throughout this process, (the department) has welcomed and valued the public input it has received."

Current state standards require farms with at least 500 animals to place their manure storage facilities at least 350 feet from neighbors' property lines. The state doesn't impose the standards but local governments must apply it if they regulate farms.

A department advisory committee concluded in April, however, that the 350-foot minimum setback doesn't protect homes, schools and high-use areas such as playgrounds from odors.

Under the revisions, new farms with at least 500 animals as well as farms looking to expand to at least 500 animals would have to place manure storage facilities between 600 feet and 2,500 feet from neighbors' property lines. The exact distance would depend on the size of the herd. Farms could reduce the setback distance by mitigating the stench using anaerobic digesters, injecting manure into the ground rather than spreading or other techniques.

The state wouldn't impose the standards on farmers but local governments would have to apply them if they permit farms, just like the current system.

Scott Laeser, water program director for environmental group Clean Wisconsin, on Wednesday called the standards "modest and long overdue."

But a coalition of farm advocacy groups sent DATCP a letter last week arguing that the approach wouldn't be workable. Farmers could be forced to place manure pits thousands of feet from a neighbor's empty fields or woods. They also complained that farmers would have to purchase costly odor-mitigation equipment to reduce setbacks.

The groups held a joint news conference Monday to rail against the regulations, saying no farmers were included on the advisory committee, the setbacks are so extreme no one will be able to expand their operations and local governments that oppose factory farms will apply the setbacks to block new facilities.

"If adopted unchanged, this revised rule would result in significant costs to operations that want to expand, resulting in a 'chilling effect' on livestock industry growth," the Wisconsin Dairy Alliance said in a statement Monday. "Rather than grow in Wisconsin, producers will leave the state for more workable locations. Following the supply, meat and milk processors will move new investment opportunities to wherever that supply is."

Wisconsin governor says he would mull mandatory gun buybacks

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, center, and Attorney General Josh Kaul, left, listen during a press conference announcing new gun control legislation, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019, in the Governors conference room in Madison, Wis.

MADISON, Wis. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers said Thursday that he would consider requiring assault weapon owners to sell such guns back to the government, sparking an instant backlash from Republican legislators.

The GOP's top leaders said Evers finally revealed what they believe is Democrats' true goal of disarming legal gun owners. They promised that he would never succeed as long as Republicans control the Legislature.

"With Governor Evers considering confiscating firearms from law-abiding citizens, it shows just how radical Democrats have become," Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos said in a joint statement.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke has been pushing for mandatory assault rifle buybacks over the last few weeks. O'Rourke's hometown of El Paso was the site of a mass shooting in August that left 22 people dead.

Republicans have balked at the idea of forcing people to give up their assault weapons. Even some Democrats have resisted, saying O'Rourke's stance could make it harder to negotiate on gun control legislation with President Donald Trump.

Wisconsin Democrats have been working to signal to supporters that they're trying to stiffen gun control laws after a string of mass shootings around the country in August, including the El Paso attack, an attack in Dayton, Ohio, and an attack in Odessa, Texas. Assault-style rifles have been the weapons of choice in many mass shootings, including those three in August.

They introduced a universal background check bill last month and unveiled a red flag measure Thursday. That bill would allow a judge to seize people's firearms for up to a year if they pose a threat to themselves or others. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have passed similar red flag bills.

During a news conference in which the governor touted the red flag bill, he was asked if he supports mandatory buybacks of assault rifles. Evers tried to avoid answering directly, saying he's focused on the red flag proposal and the universal background check bill. Asked if that meant he didn't support buybacks, Evers responded: "I'd consider it."

Even though some Democrats have refused to embrace the idea of mandatory buybacks, Assembly Majority Leader Jim Steineke tweeted that at least Evers was being honest about Democrats' agenda. He followed that up with a statement saying mandatory buybacks would never happen as long as Republicans control the Statehouse.

"This morning's candid comments from Governor Evers only further illustrate that without a strong, Republican-led Legislature, the idea of involuntary seizure of firearms could easily become a reality in Wisconsin," Steineke said.

Democratic Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes came to Evers' defense, tweeting that Republicans are "aggressively misleading the public" about Evers' agenda. He didn't elaborate in the tweet.

Later Thursday, Evers declined to answer follow-up questions about buybacks as he left the Capitol rotunda.

Like Republicans across the country, the Wisconsin GOP has long said that restricting access to guns wouldn't stop mass shootings and could infringe on Second Amendment rights. They maintain the answer is focusing on mental health.

Republicans who deviate from that stance could open themselves up to primary challengers. Fitzgerald is running to represent a conservative swath of southeastern Wisconsin in Congress. It's unclear whether he will face any primary opponents but any moves that make him look like he supports any gun control measures could spur opponents to jump into the race against him.

Vos and Fitzgerald said in August they don't support the background check bill and said in their joint statement Thursday that the red flag bill would violate due process and the constitutional right to bear arms. They noted Republicans passed a bill last year creating $100 million in school safety grants.

Vos voted for a bill in 2014 that allows physically or mentally disabled people at risk of being abused to petition a judge to force an abuser to surrender his or her guns. The measure cleared the Senate on a voice vote, which means there was no roll call that would show how Fitzgerald voted, but as majority leader he could have blocked the bill from reaching the floor.

Vos and Fitzgerald aides didn't immediately respond to emails asking why they supported that bill but not the Democrats' red flag proposal.

Thursday marked the anniversary of a shooting at a software company in the Madison suburb of Middleton, in which an employee wounded four of his co-workers before police stormed the building and killed him.

Wisconsin school chief calls achievement gap a 'crisis'

MADISON, Wis.  Wisconsin's student achievement gap is a "crisis" that a half-billion dollar boost in education funding will begin to address, the state superintendent said Thursday in her first "state of education" address.

State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor delivered the message to an audience of teachers, school officials, office holders and others at the state Capitol. Taylor took over as state superintendent in December after her predecessor, Tony Evers, was elected governor. Evers also attended.

The speech came a week after standardized test scores for the last school year, when Evers was state superintendent, showed that less than half of Wisconsin students are proficient in math and English and that such scores were dropping. The scores also showed a continuing achievement gap between white and non-white students.

Democrats said the poor test results showed the need to increase funding for K-12 schools.

The budget approved by the Legislature last year and signed by Evers increased K-12 funding by $500 million. Evers used his broad veto powers to increase funding by another $65 million, but it was still well short of the $1.4 billion he had wanted.

Funding also increased by about $650 million in the budget passed in 2017, which came after six years of education funding that was largely flat or cut.

Republicans who control the Legislature said the test results showed that the status quo was not working. Republicans refused to spend as much on schools as Democrats and Evers wanted.

CJ Szafir, a vice president with the conservative law firm the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, said Taylor and lawmakers should work to help high-performing schools expand, grow school choice and make funding more equitable and transparent.

The fight over education funding and how to hold schools accountable has raged for decades in the Capitol and it shows no signs of abating. Republicans have successfully grown the state's private school voucher program to provide more alternatives for students who want to leave public schools. Democrats have pushed for more funding to help struggling public schools catch up.

Stanford Taylor, in her speech, said progress was being made to address "deep, persistent gaps in achievement, access and opportunity." Stanford Taylor, who is the state's first black superintendent of schools, described her own upbringing as the ninth of 14 children in segregated Mississippi.

"Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, we are still fighting for equitable educational opportunities for all children, no matter their race or background," she said. "Together, we can have the difficult conversations about race and equity in our schools and our communities and tackle our achievement, access and opportunity gap as the crisis it is."

She praised the recently signed budget as a "down payment" on a commitment to equity.

"While it is not everything we asked for, this budget makes an investment in all of Wisconsin's children and begins to provide additional support to some of our most underserved," Stanford Taylor said.

The test scores showed that 40% of students in math and 39% in reading were proficient or advanced, down slightly from the previous year.

The gap in the percentage of white students who were proficient in math compared with black students ranged from more than 26 points in eighth grade to nearly 33 points in third and fifth grades. In English, the gap ranged from nearly 24 points in eighth grade to almost 29 points in seventh grade.

Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the scores "disturbing" and "a cause for concern for parents, educators and taxpayers."

Associated Press